Play Fair: Is Gender Equity in Music and Fine Arts Possible?

As 2022 begins, there are reasons to salute recent advancements women have made globally in the arts. 

For the first time in history, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra hired a woman, Valerie Schatz, to join the ranks of the double bass section. The Atlanta Symphony welcomes Nathalie Stutzmann to the podium in 2022 as the only woman leading a major symphony in the United States. 

The recent news that 273 Afghanistan National Institute of Music teachers, students and their families were able to escape Afghanistan for the safety of Portugal is also reassuring. Months earlier, the Taliban closed the institute that had been the home of Zohra, an all-female orchestra featured at world-renowned centers including Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House.

Still, women have long suffered discrimination in the arts beyond music. In a field that is generally regarded as progressive, the lack of success for women in arts-related fields should raise eyebrows rather than be cause for celebration. 

Obviously, there is a wide gulf between the gender discrimination experienced by women in democratic societies and the violent oppression of women in countries like Afghanistan. But whether through overt persecution or veiled sexism, the absence of female agency has a similar result. 

As a female university music educator, professional musician and conductor, I encourage and support all students by offering gender-balanced representations of master conductors for study. When training conductors, providing students with diverse role models is essential to the development of unbiased, equitable acceptance.

In a recent global study, 98 percent of the music performed by major orchestras was written by male composers. Women represent just 20 percent or fewer of composers and songwriters. (Agence Tophos / Flickr)

Historically, women were not allowed to perform in professional orchestras until 1913, when six female violinists earned positions in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra in London. Women have made slow progress in the jazz music industry, where sexism and misogyny that began 100 years ago is still creating barriers to success for all but a few. Today, women represent just 10 percent of jazz academics. 

Women still make up less than half of the performers in professional orchestras throughout Europe and the United States. According to the League of American Orchestras, women account for less than 15 percent of orchestra conductors at all levels (youth and adult).

In a recent global study by Utrecht University and Universitat Pompeu Fabra researchers, 98 percent of the music performed by major orchestras was written by male composers. Women represent just 20 percent or fewer of composers and songwriters.

As Grammy-nominated pianist and composer Nomi Abadi put it, “We haven’t acknowledged the #MeToo movement in composing at all. It’s as if it’s affecting the rest of Hollywood, but not us.” 

The situation of inequity also exists in the popular music industry, with just 23 percent of 2019 Billboard 100 artists identifying as female and gender minorities. Women accounted for only 14 percent of songwriters and 5 percent of producers, both minimal increases from previous years. 

More disturbing are the accounts of sexism and harassment within the music industry. As reported by Forbes, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California has sited three key factors that undermine equality for women in the music industry: sexual harassment and objectification, ageism and male-dominated resources.

Women in the traditional Irish music community recently recounted incidents of gross discrimination and even sexual assault by tutors, managers and fellow musicians in a Cambridge University study.

The gender disparities in the art world show that female representation in galleries is minimal and their works tend to sell for as much as 40 percent less than artworks by males. According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 87 percent of the permanent art collections in the 18 most prestigious U.S. museums were created by men. 

Only two paintings by women have ever earned sales placing them in the top 100 artworks sold at auction, and 96 percent of art sold at auction were created by males.

But many are driving for solutions with global movements for equity in music and visual arts aiming to accelerate progress toward arts gender equity.

The NWMA recently announced a partnership with the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center to present their first off-site exhibition of contemporary women-identifying artists this winter while their historic building is temporarily closed for renovations. 

Guerrilla Girls, Inc. has taken arts advocacy efforts to the streets since 1985 in demonstrations and protest art based on their research. They champion the artworks of female, non-binary, and minority artists through the group’s art, media, website and Guerrilla Girls on Tour, Inc

Marin Alsop, American conductor of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, began offering yearly conducting masterclasses specifically for women in 2014. She promoted the performance of music composed by women during her summer 2021 tenure as Chief Conductor and Curator of the Ravinia Festival in Illinois.

The Dallas Opera Hart Institute for Women Conductors since 2015 has addressed the dearth of women in top leadership roles with professional music ensembles by training more than 500 international female conductors over the last six years.

In the pop world, international artists Rebekah and Sydney Blu are leading #23by23, challenging record labels to increase the percentage of female producers to 23 percent or more by the end of 2023. The Australian ARIA Awards eliminated gender-based categories from their 35th edition in an effort to embrace equality and diversity. 

Arts consumers have a role to play in advancing the voices of women and minority artists. Purchasing music and merchandise directly from minority artists and minority-owned businesses ensures their visibility and longevity. Sharing favorite female and minority created art, literature and music introduces new audiences to diverse creators, giving these artists a greater share of the market.

It is crucial to celebrate the grand achievements of women in the arts. The stories of refugees and highly successful women in music and the arts can launch greater representation and improved opportunities. 

Everyone needs to continue to open doors that have remained shut for all but a chosen few for too long.

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Dr. Laurie C. Williams is a faculty fellow and assistant professor of music education at the University of Indianapolis and a public voices fellow of The OpEd Project.